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About such an ineffable perfection that is God the only thing we may predicate is that IT EXISTS. It is perfect and pure spirit, pure knowledge. Brahman is not an object of knowledge in the sense that we have objects of knowledge in our everyday experience.  ‘Atman cannot be obtained by just study or learned discussion; It comes to one who yearns for Realization and whose mind has learnt to look for it within himself’ (Kenopanishad). ‘All this world is permeated by paramAtman; they all abide in Him.  But He stands apart.’ (B.G.VII -4). ‘Everything in the universe abides in the Supreme Being’  (Isopanishad). The objects of our everyday experience  are presented to our sense perceptions and they are ‘objects’ in relation to a knowing ‘subject’. But Brahman cannot be known this way. Brahman is Truth, Knowledge, Infinitude.  (‘satyam, jnAnaM, anantaM’ : Taittiriyopanishad).  It is the Truth of Truths (Bhagavatam X-2-26).  If it ‘knows’ something the act of knowing has changed its status and this is contradictory to its nature, namely, satyaM. JnAnaM therefore means not mere knowledge but consciousness itself. It is the Absolute Consciousness we are talking about here, where there is nothing else to be conscious of. Just as light is light even if there is nothing to be lighted, so also is Consciousness. Brahman is the one Reality which is unchanging, unlimited, without a second and is consciousness itself. ‘He who thinks he knows, really thereby proves he is ignorant. He who realizes that he does not know Him has best understood Him’ (Kenopanishad). Thus Brahman is not an object of understanding in the ordinary sense and it follows that the categories of understanding, such as cause and effect, substance and attribute, have no bearing so far as Brahman is concerned. Knowledge of Brahman is not derived in the usual way, by observation and experiment, but by personal experience, insight and realization. ‘To know Brahman is to become Brahman’ is the classical refrain of the Upanishads. It is a deep communion, what Shankara calls direct realization (aparokshAnubhuti).


According to Shankara, therefore, Brahman is nirguNa (attributeless and non-relational).  You can’t relate it to something and make a statement out of it. The world of difference is not a manifestation of NirguNa Brahman but only its appearance. The appearance is less real than the substratum that contains it. Brahman is the ultimate Reality.  The universe belongs to a lower order of reality. Shankara does not deny the multiplicity of the world of experience; he only assigns it to a lower order of reality.  NirguNa Brahman is therefore so unique that nothing on this side of experience, however sublime or elevating, can approximate to it. Attempting to describe it is like attempting to describe sweetness to someone who has never tasted sweetness. Nothing that the human mind can think of can be affirmed of Brahman. When one attains communion with it one becomes speechless. ‘It is not this’, ‘It is not that’ –this is all that one can say about it. Shankara in giving a name to this philosophy does not call it  monism (ekatva) – but advaita (the philosophy of ‘that which has no second’).  The term monism gives the impression that it has been achieved by reducing one of two terms placed in opposition to each other.  It cannot be characterized as the One, because this has no meaning except in relation to the many. Any other positive characterization will be equally open to this objection. Hence Shankara’s description of it as non-dualism. It is not an identity in relation to differences, not a one in relation to the many, not a whole in relation to the parts, not a substance in relation to its attributes, not a cause in relation to the effect. All these are relational concepts and so have to be rejected. The statement that Brahman rises above thought and word should not, however, be interpreted to mean that it is empty and non-existent. The denial of predicates affects only the ‘whatness’ of the judgement and leaves the ‘thatness’ untouched. The negation of appearances will not in the least affect the underlying reality.


The concept of different orders of Reality is strictly due to Shankara. It is based on the rising levels of our experience. If something is perceived by one individual, even for a brief moment, it must be granted to be that far real.  But the criterion of ultimate reality is that of non-contradiction. To begin with we have illusions and dream experiences. A rope mistaken for a snake, nacre mistaken for silver, the trunk of a tree mistaken for a thief, these are familiar experiences.  These objects last only so long as their perception lasts. They suffer contradiction when a higher level of experience -- an experience that lasts longer -- takes possession of the mind. This reality which vanishes at a higher level of experience is said to be a phenomenal reality and it is known in technical parlance as prAtibhAsika sattA.  The world which we experience belongs to a higher order of reality called empirical reality (vyAvahArika sattA).  But even this world is not absolutely real as it is subsumed in a still higher experience. When the fundamental unity of the Self  with Brahman is realized, the world of our waking moments is submerged. So Brahman-Consciousness is of a higher order of reality.  There is no higher reality beyond that because it is Pure Consciousness. Absence of consciousness is a contradiction in terms. The very knowledge of absence of consciousness implies the existence of some consciousness. This highest intuition which should not be called consciousness of the Absolute, is Consciousness itself. This is the Absolute Ultimate Reality – pAramArthika sattA. At this level the dualism of subject and object is no longer present and there is only the mystic communion, which is called nirvikalpa samAdhi


What hears sound is the ear. What tastes an edible is the tongue.  But both sensations are received by the brain, registered by the mind and the awareness of both sensations is due to the life-force, the Atman-principle within. This Atman-principle is exactly what Consciousness is. It is a bundle of knowledge.  When we switch on a light in a dark room, we see many objects. The same light lights them all.  But when the room is empty of objects, the emptiness itself is indicated by the same light.  In the same way when the room is dark the darkness is registered in our awareness by the light within us. That light within us is Consciousness.  It is the same Consciousness that showed the light to us when the room was lighted.


Of course if we were blind this consciousness would not tell us whether the room is lighted or not. But it would know that this body-mind-intellect does not know whether the room is lighted or not. A dead body in the room would not know whether the room is lighted or not and would not even know that it does not know.  Because the dead body is just an inert matter without the presence of consciousness (Atman)  in it. 


Question 1: The dead body also should be Consciousness, because Consciousness as the omnipresent Absolute Reality is everywhere. Why then is it not knowledgeable about the lighting in the room?


Very legitimate question! Although the Ultimate Self (Consciousnss) is present at all times and in all things, it cannot shine in everything. Just as a reflection appears only in polished surfaces, so also the Self shines as Consciousness only in the intellect (Shankara’s Atma-bodha, Verse 17). The intellect (and the mind) has already left the body in the case of a dead body!


Question 2:  Is it not illogical to talk about a pure contentless consciousness?


No. We shall borrow an illustration used by M.K. Venkatrama Iyer in his book ‘Advaita Vedanta’. From architecture to sculpture, from sculpture to painting, from painting to poetry, from poetry to music, there is a gradual transition from a situation of content-domination to one of form-domination.  In architecture brick and mortar occupy the dominant content. This dominance recedes into the background when the sculptor with his chisel produces a whole saga out of just one piece of stone.  In painting there is very little physical content, but there is a substantial amount of form that predominates. In poetry by mere words one brings out a whole bundle of meanings, emotions and expressions. Here matter or content is at its lowest and form takes over almost fully. But when we move over to music, there are not even words.  By the mere form of music one is enraptured into whatever emotion the composer has designed for you.  Music is pure form with no material physical content. If this can happen in art, it can also happen in the description of reality behind the universe where, as we advance in spiritual evolution we pass to higher and higher states of consciousness. Starting from the waking state of consciousness in which we are so full of content that even the consciousness behind it is hidden, we go step by step until we reach the stage where there is no matter but only pure spirit, pure consciousness.  Twentieth century Physics tells us that our consciousness is in some intricate way mixed up with the external world.  Vedanta declares that there is no mixing up, in the sense that there is only consciousness. There is not even a subject and an object.


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© 2017 by V. Krishnamurthy